Superstar comedian and all-round total idiot George Simmons (Adam Sandler) discovers he has a rare form of almost certainly fatal leukaemia, which forces him to confront the fact that the life he leads is empty and pointless. From writer-director Judd Apatow
If Funny People were a knock-knock joke, its punch line would be that you've opened the door to find nobody there. The third film directed and written by hit machine producer Judd Apatow, it's a tale of a hugely successful, not very sympathetic person confronting their mortality for the first time, a potentially rich set-up that constantly threatens to deliver, only to run off chuckling darkly to itself and failing to involve the audience. For two and a half hours.
Adam Sandler plays lead funny person George Simmons, a mega-star comedian probably marginally more famous than Adam Sandler, but not by much. It's a great role for Sandler, and there's an excellent line where another character, meeting him for the first time, comments on how amusing George is in person: they're now baffled as to why his movies are never funny. It's a nice acknowledgement of an established school of critical thought on Adam Sandler.
Funny People won't be the film to change that thinking, despite a fine performance from Sandler. He perfectly captures the emptiness of a man with access to every material pleasure, who on being diagnosed with an almost certainly fatal disease, can think of no more effective coping mechanism than hiring a keen young stand-up comedian Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) as his nominal PA and sole confidant. The problem is, we have little reason to care for a fellow like George.
It's left to the supporting cast to generate some warmth. Rogen is endearing as Ira, the slightly starstruck schlub plucked from obscurity to enjoy the obsequious heights of PA-dom. He comes fully equipped with requisite mick-taking flatmates, who feel like a self-contained sitcom about the male ego. Jonah Hill is Leo, the plus-size version of Ira, while Jason Schwartzman steals scenes as Mark, the "marginally famous" star of a credibly awful sitcom, 'Yo Teach'.
Schwartzman, as ever, is so much better when he's playing a bit of a schmuck than he is as romantic hero. Mark is in the habit of leaving his generous payslips on his impoverished friend's pillows "by mistake" and gives dorky Ira 10 days to make a date with Daisy, the indie chick next door (a promising Aubrey Plaza in an underwritten role), or he'll sleep with her first. Apparently Mark is based on an old friend Apatow and Sandler shared a flat with as unknown stand-ups before their respective successes.
As a look at what it might be like to have to be funny for a living, Funny People knows its stuff: it's made by people who've experienced every inch of the long road to comedy stardom, from unpaid open mic nights to writing gags for a more famous comic to being that famous comic, and the film is peppered with neat cameos from the comic fraternity. The detailed movie star ephemera in George Simmons' nouveau mansion is a joy, especially the lovingly mocked up posters for movies every bit as ludicrous as many an Adam Sandler vehicle; putative co-stars include Owen Wilson and Justin Long.
Disappointingly, as a look at what it might feel like to be diagnosed with a terminal disease, Funny People feels as hollow as the life of its protagonist. This is not the fault of its star: Sandler does a good job (no, seriously). The experiment Apatow is attempting is also an interesting idea but one that doesn't fly: what if you were terminally ill, realised your life was empty, then recovered and essentially forgot everything you'd just learned? It might be realistic, but it's not an involving journey for the viewer who is left with the realisation that they've just spent two and a half hours of their life watching a total jerk kind of half-realise that they're a total jerk before reverting to thinking that actually maybe they weren't so badly off living life as a total jerk.
And yes, you did read that run time right. Two and a half hours. 146 minutes if you want to be precise. As someone who actually didn't think The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King went on for too long, and could even have stood a little more time in the Shire at the end, it is to be hoped that you will trust that criticising a movie for length is not something this reviewer would undertake lightly.
Two and a half hours is too long for almost any comedy, but especially a semi-comedy, semi-soap opera comedy with over-long gaps between laughs. After around 90 minutes, the film reaches what could have been a suitable ending: George learns he has recovered, against the odds. (This is not a spoiler; it's in the trailer). Then, suddenly, a second film starts to roll. This second film is all about George's mistake in cheating on 'The One' 12 years ago, and a boring, half-arsed attempt to win her back.
Said 'One', aka Laura, is played by Apatow's beautiful wife Leslie Mann, who has two cute kids played by Apatow's own cute kids, which may go some way to explaining why he couldn't be objective and cut this superfluous second film. He would also have to lose Eric Bana's possessive Australian husband, which would be a great shame, as Bana is great value getting back to his all but forgotten comic roots.
Shame or not, what Apatow needs to learn if he genuinely wants to make this transition into Woody Allen-style existential comedy is that it doesn't matter if what you're cutting is good: sometimes, you've got to cut it in service of the film as a whole. Annie Hall was 93 minutes long, said twice as much as Funny People and contains roughly twice as many laughs.
Allowing your movie to stagger out into cinemas, so big and bloated that the prospect of ever sitting through it again feels like the film equivalent of a meal hosted by Mr Creosote is not excused by the notion that you're exploring big concepts. Call Harvey 'Scissorhands' Weinstein next time and invite him around for a brutally honest editing session, because somewhere inside Funny People is a much better movie struggling to get out.